Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Eastern Path Up the Mountain

The Eastern Path 
Up the Mountain

Prologue: 1001 Disco Nights

Chapter One: First Base Camp

One Thousand and One Disco Nights

Part I

Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk
I'm a woman's man, no time to talk

Stayin’ Alive

That man. That man you see standing there. His eyes glittery with energy. Eyes darting round the room. He’s looking you see. Looking for a girl. One to dance with and bring a drink to, and later, when it’s time for her to leave, he’ll happen to be by the door. He’ll move in with a smile, she’ll respond with a glance of recognition. He’ll say something: separate her from her friends. Like culling an animal from the herd really. He’ll do it fast, before she has time to think. And before she has time to think––her brain is racing anyway––he’ll lightly touch the small of her back, and steer her in the direction of his car, which happens to be a Mercedes: Eggshell Blue. Inside the car––throbbing with surround sound–– they’ll laugh like they’ve known each other forever. Back at Her Place they’ll feast on crackers and grapes; they'll have sex like they’re going to be lovers forever. Dessert anyone? But it’s the first time, then the second, third, forth, maybe more, and then it’s over. The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream. The only forever is the forever of over. He’ll be gone when she wakes up.

Did he seduce her? Think again. Look a little more closely at the man. Because you see she knew he wasn’t really for her. Not a man that beautiful.  She marveled that he chose her. For that one moment, that one dance. It was all the more extraordinary because he was so courteous, so courtly. Making sure every step of the way that this was what she wanted. And it was. It was what she wanted. Back at her apartment, back in her bed, that place of ultimate security, he unleashed his incredible energy––an energy that she had sensed in his glittery eyes. As a lover he was more than generous. Adventurous, he found places in her that she didn’t know existed. Was it possible to experience so much pleasure and survive? The girl thought fleetingly of Semele, the mortal who asked to experience the embrace of her lover, Zeus, in his native form; he came to her then as a lightning bolt, and she was incinerated. The girl felt curiously like Semele. This sexual encounter was almost like being transformed by some elemental energy form. She felt forever changed, as though she had been born, lost her virginity and died all in one night. It was almost too much.

In the morning she thought about it. About what had happened. To her. Amazing! Every detail was vivid in her mind. She went over it again and again. Had never known it could be like this. Later, she interrogated her feelings, as women are wont to do. Was she in love? After one night? Was that really possible? It seemed so. She arranged to go back to the I-Beam that night with her friends. She thought about seeing him again. Were his eyes green or brown? Perhaps she had forgotten their color, but she had not forgotten their spark. Nor could she forget the pulse of the music, which seemed the same to her as his pulse. In her mind’s eye he moved, he shone, he flowed like quicksilver. What was his name?

Tonight she would keep her wits about her, would refuse that drink .She would get to know him. Unsure exactly what he looked like, she remembered so clearly his courtesy, his grace.

There was one thing about him, of course, that she remembered very clearly indeed, but this was something she wouldn’t mention to anyone. So long and splendid, in the beginning it had almost frightened her. She had never seen the like on a white man. Was there really going to be room for all that? But yes, there had been room for all that.

At the I-Beam that night, she looked forward to seeing him, now with incredible tenderness, as though she had known him since childhood, now with a kind of shivery excitement, so childishly expectant that she felt somewhat embarrassed by the surging momentum of her hope. But alas, after searching the dance floor for an hour or more, she had to admit to herself, and to the friends who accompanied her that night, that either he wasn’t there, or she couldn’t recognize him. Several times, she saw someone, fleetingly, from the side or the back, whom she thought resembled her fugitive lover. But on closer inspection, it always turned out that it was most definitely not he. Either the man she glimpsed turned out to have a beard, or blue eyes, a mustache, or a blond ponytail: some feature, indeed, that removed the individual entirely from consideration. She went on searching for another hour with no better success; then, suddenly, at the end of her rope, feeling somewhat abashed, even foolish, she told her friends that she wasn’t feeling well and headed home. She knew, somehow, that she would not see the man again.

So this is what they meant by a one-night stand! she thought.  Everyone was so befuddled with drink that, had they even wanted to, the individual members of the sundered couples gyrating on the dance floor could not be recognized with any certainty––not by anyone present at the I-Beam, certainly not by their passionate partners of the night before. And this is what they meant by great sex, she mused. At the time it had felt like a visitation, almost holy; but seeing her behavior now through the eyes of her friends, and worse, through the eyes of friendly acquaintances, she felt no small degree of consternation. What would people think of her, going off like that with someone she didn’t know? She knew what a rare thing she had felt and experienced, but might not people who didn’t know believe that she had been taken advantage of, used?

For while each girl that he slept with reacted to the glorious sex appreciatively, even ecstatically, at the time, by promptly falling in love, when they realized that this had been a one-night stand, moreover with a man that they could not readily identify, the female partners of the disco playboy reacted differently, each according to her character. Some secretly rejoiced at having had such a joyful experience. Some were openly proud of having been chosen. Others, though, felt that a promise, if not explicitly given, had nevertheless been implied by the gentleman’s courtesy, by the very fact of his attentions to them. A promise of what? you might well ask. For they couldn’t say exactly what had been promised. Yet their belief in a promise not honored inspired in them feelings of anger and humiliation––feelings best kept to themselves. Still others reacted with sadness at a paradise lost, or again, surprise and delight at the joyful discovery of a world heretofore unexpected, a world of pleasure that had just been opened up for them.

Yet however they reacted, these  One-Nighter girls, I confess that I envied them all. Even knowing what their eventual fate would be as they left the club on his arm: laughing, excited, flushed with alcohol and with an even headier brew of infatuation and romantic success, number thirty-four or number seventy-eight, I envied them because on a particular night he had chosen them, out of all the others in the happily pulsating, gloriously swirling colorband disco.

He had not chosen me. Night after night, he looked right through me. He felt no wish for me. Were I the only woman standing before him, looking upon him with trepidation, with desire, and so evidently loving him, and knowing and understanding him so much better than all the rest––still, he would not choose me. Rather he would walk to another part of the club.

And I had longed for him. Watching him night after night, a pillar of grace on the dance floor, a man with, seemingly, a secret source of energy: only human, to be sure, but connected somehow by the very root of his being to the life force, exemplifying its earthly thrust, reflecting too something quiet and elusive, ethereal, something of the divine, he spoke to my most secret, my innermost desires.    

What’s a girl to do? Perhaps as they say, discretion is the better part of valor; perhaps it would have been better had I continued to watch the parade. But I was heartsore and, with piety and passionate observance of the rituals, I directed my prayers to the Goddess. And perhaps , indeed, she would have gone on deflecting my prayers, but that I had the happy good fortune to free one of her acolytes, a female djinn that had been trapped in a beer bottle I retrieved one evening from a heap of debris in one of the club parking lots, having noticed how the bottle had an unearthly shimmer and shine. And though the djinn was out of sorts from having been trapped in the bottle so long––clearly an uncomfortable position for a spirit–– she was in the end obliged to grant me the traditional three wishes.

So I took my three tokens to the altar outside the City, and prayed to the Goddess once more. And when she awoke she saw the tokens, and thanking me for rescuing the acolyte, she heard my first two wishes and nodded agreement.

“I love the man who comes every night to the clubs,” I told her. “The one who–––“

“I know the one.”

“So I pray you, Goddess, grant me one thousand and one nights with the man. That is my first wish.”

“Granted. But if I am right, my girl, he has never yet chosen you of his own free will. So how shall we arrange it?”

“Great Goddess, I have considered that. For my second wish, I ask that you grant me the divine power of Seeming, that you enable me to change my appearance, to become one woman one night, another another. That I may become indeed a Mistress of Disguise––“

“I get the gist. Your second wish is granted. And your third wish?”

But I was no fool. I well knew how, in fairy tales, in every sort of lore, these wishes could often go awry. So I said: “I will tell you my third wish when the thousand and one nights have passed.”

“Clever girl,” said the Goddess. “Go then and enjoy your lover for one thousand and one nights. For, poor benighted mortal, he shall have his freedom curtailed, so that even as he imagines that he is sleeping with a thousand and one women, he will be every night with a woman who is one and the same.”

And so began one thousand and one nights of love and disco, one thousand and one nights of seduction to the never-ending tunes of the Bee Gees and their imitators. One thousand nights of disguise, of change and transformation, of appearance and reality, of illusion and deception––one thousand, and one.

Part II

One Thousand and One Disco Nights

I’ve seen you look at strangers, too many times.
The love you want is of a different kind.

(All day, all day) Watch them all fall down.
(All day, all day) Domino dancing

I’ve watched you dance with danger, still wanting more,
Add another number to the score.

(All day, all day) Watch them all fall down.
(All day, all day) Domino dancing

Domino Dancing, Pet Shop Boys

What do you think it’s like to dance with the man you love, to captivate him, to charm and enchant him, but never be known to him as the woman you are? You think it strange? How much stranger, then, to do this a thousand times; a thousand times plus one. For now my deepest wish had been granted, and from that day on I donned the veil of deception, time after time creating myself after the images of the most desirable women he might ever see.  I created and recreated Beauty; I created and recreated Elegance and Femininity and Grace. I created and recreated Woman. Hundreds of images of Woman: I made them all, guessing at what his inner picture of Woman might be: imagining the tender images that guided his desires.

How did I know the nature of his desires? I watched him. Watched carefully. Watched him watching women. And as soon as he had given me a clue, and before he could be drawn to another, I made myself into a better, superior version of the woman he fancied. And time after time, he chose me––not the real me to be sure (and indeed, wrapped in all those veils of illusion, I began to wonder who the real me might be), but a splendid facsimile of me, a fabrication, an apparition, a cleverly wrought design.

He chose me as his dancing partner and he left the club with me, always for His Place now (for how could I possibly redecorate my apartment so many times?) And then I was his ideal, his prize, his conquest, always different, with a different body, but always the same. Sometimes languid, sometimes shy, at other times a firecracker, matching his energy and passion, I became his ever-changing but constant lover. Then, when our passion was spent, and I had fought off the temptation to fall asleep, there was time to talk. Just a little time. Precious moments in which I might come to know him better. For in the end I wanted to become his confidant, to win his trust so that I might win his heart.

*   *   *

The disco continues to draw me. I have never loved a woman, not in the way love is shown in the films or described in stories. As soon as my desire for one woman is gratified, I desire another. I have always been drawn to variety, to experience. But if I have not loved any women individually, I have loved Woman, deeply and passionately, and with utter devotion. In this way I bring happiness, I bring joy to the joyous and goodness to the good.

Last year there was a strange girl who rather haunted me. Long, curly dark hair. She obviously used heated curlers just before coming to the club. Always dressed in black––her one little black dress no doubt––she watched me in a way that I found disconcerting, as though she were planning to capture and confine me. I’m not saying she was a stalker. No, nothing like that. She kept her distance, never spoke to me. And she was attractive in an average sort of a way: the kind of girl I might pick up one night when things were slow. But I had a funny feeling about her, a feeling of unfreedom. She had marriage written all over her. Well, it wasn’t going to be with me!

And some time last year, just at the point when I was actually tempted to break the ice and talk to this girl, maybe dance with her, and who knows? maybe even leave the club with her––to find out what this was all about, or if nothing else to satisfy my curiosity: just when I reached that point, on the night after the night when she appeared for the last time in her little black dress, just when I had reached the point of genuine interest, she stopped coming to the club.

The really attractive women, the confident, stylish women, had stopped wearing these little black dresses over a year ago. The dress she wore, it was a dress no longer than a shirt really, and I imagined I’d glimpsed the lacy black panties she’d found to go with it more than once as she moved to the music, reaching up and bending over just ever so slightly awkwardly on the dance floor. And though she had a good body, small and compact, with tight buns and round little breasts, and a face that was pert, if not pretty, though she was really not bad looking, that sequined dress, and the four-inch heels she’d chosen to go with it––that dress, I noticed the night before she disappeared, instead of making her appear glamorous and sexy, somehow brought out the very average quality of her appearance that she had presumably been striving to conceal. And something about that: about her naive attempt to be sexy, and her failure really, her failure, piqued my interest, it really did, and for the first time, to my surprise, I felt more than curiosity. I felt an unwelcome stirring, an itch for the girl.

But the next night, when I actually looked around for her a little bit, she wasn’t there. Nor the next night nor the night after that. And oddly, that was the beginning, as it seemed to me, of a very strange year at the club: a year when the women I encountered were more beautiful than ever, extraordinarily so, in fact. And though I was invariably successful in taking home the most attractive among them––always a different woman, different every night––from that time on, from the time my little shadow, the girl in the black dress, disappeared––I felt a curious dissatisfaction, a kind of habituation about these women who danced with me and made love to me, as though my pleasant life of freedom had somehow been undermined, and I, no longer the free agent I had meant to be, was dancing to someone else’s tune. But how could that be, indeed? For all of my actions at the club, on the dance floor, and back at home, in bed, all of my actions and my choices were entirely my own.

*   *   *

As my time with the man I loved sped on, a time in which it could be said that I virtually controlled the progress of our encounters, since it was I who decided under what guise I would appear to him, and I who had the opportunity to piece together knowledge of him from one encounter to the next, while he had no corresponding knowledge of me––indeed, had no knowledge that I was one and the same person––I nevertheless became increasingly uncertain of my ability to win his heart. For truth to tell, I did not know how to make him love me in any of the disguises I embodied. So, fearing that he would never love me as I did him, I began to wish, and to expect, that I might discover some unworthiness in his character. But this was not to be so. For the better I got to know him––and under how many guises!– the kinder and more compassionate, the more generous and even magnanimous, the more intelligent and insightful––in short, the worthier, did he appear to be.

How I longed to call him boyfriend, fiancé, husband:  some title that would convey possession. For as it was, I had no rights over him. None. Every night I must exert myself to captivate him anew. Yet however I thrilled at our every encounter, underneath it all I longed to speak of him to the world, to use the possessive: “My–” My what? For as much as I had tricked him nightly into being my lover, he was not in any real sense mine.

So in those early days of discovering our affinity, our curious intimacy, in those first days and weeks of unpacking it from its foil wrapping, crackly and meretricious, a wrapping that had disguised its properties all: size, shape, color, weight, I fervently wished that he was mine, that he could become mine, simply mine, even in a trite and conventional way, like a Valentine’s Day candy heart with the word “mine” imprinted on it, like a Valentine’s candy that one could pop into one’s mouth and, sucking on it, feel it disintegrate against the tongue, without even thinking of the little heart that was disappearing inside of one, as one thought not about it but about other things, as one went cheerily about one’s business. 

And in the midterm of our intimacy, after the novelty of my latest disguise had worn off, and I fancied he could recognize me beneath my mask, when we seemed to fit together like two mechanical parts, newly minted, like a lock and the only, the correct key that fit it, I began to imagine that he, too, must recognize the perfect fit that we had become. 

But he was nothing if not honest, and he told me repeatedly, whether I was a long-legged blonde, fiery redhead, or dark, mysterious woman with splendid breasts, he told me: I am not constant, I am yours for this night only, beyond tomorrow I cannot accompany you.

*   *   *

How strange life is. I have worshiped Woman. I have knelt at the altar of the Goddess. I have been her tireless devotee. Yet the more I pursue these extraordinary women, the more ordinary they seem. It is as though they had all attended the same convent school, come from the same type of family in the same part of town, recited the same catechism, learnt the same languages, taken the same journeys, formed the same ambitions, dreamed the same dreams. Was it Flaubert who said that every time he encountered a beautiful woman, he saw the skull beneath her face, the skeleton beneath her fleshy body?

*   *   *

 Is it possible?

Is it possible that nearly three years have elapsed? Nearly three years in which I have pursued love unrelenting, refusing to believe that he would not one day be mine? Nearly three years in which time I luxuriated, happy and forgetful, glorying in the nightly embraces of an extraordinary being, experiencing his passion, his  tenderness, yet in the end, coming no closer to possessing him?

Can it be now that our time is drawing to a close? Will I face eternity without this love? Loss without remission? Can I do nothing? Nothing at all to redeem lost time?   

May it not be so!

O lente, lente currite, noctis equi.
Shall our nights of love be finally disbursed by the dawn’s early light?

Run slowly, slowly, ye horses of the night.
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike!

For I feel that as much as we have enjoyed one another, we have grown no closer to becoming One. My time is nearly up, and I have failed to make him love me. In truth, he has not even recognized me: the lover with a thousand faces, the constancy beneath the change. Yet my effort has been great. I have pursued him with all my heart. Surely no one deserves this man's love more than I do! I who have spared no effort on his behalf! I who have worked so hard to win him.

I shall visit the Goddess and ask for more time. I must have more time!

*   *   *  

It’s been three years or so since my little shadow disappeared – that girl at the club who used to follow me around with her eyes. She was never high on my priority list – hey! Most of the time she wasn’t even on it. But funny the way the ones you don’t get to have stick in the mind. She was interested in me, and she watched me all the time quietly from a distance. What was it she saw? Why didn’t she just come up to me and say something? Why didn’t I go up to her? It’s as though we were all the time holding opposite ends of some invisible thread that connected us in some mysterious way – opposite ends of a thread that required us to remain at a distance, to regard one another across a crowded room.

A short girl. A girl with long curly hair. Small eyes. What were their color? Not exceptionally pretty either. In fact her hair, abundant and silky, may have been her best feature. And after she disappeared, I confess, I longed to run my hands through it, longed to let the silky curls cascade  through my fingers like water from the purest source. And at times, when I felt angry at her for having disappeared, I imagined – how uncharacteristic of me! – I imagined clutching that beautiful hair in my two hands and roughly jerking her head back, making her look up at me in amazement and surprise, making her look right into my eyes. And I thought fleetingly of Alexander the Great at Delphi, dragging the Pythia by the hair to force a prophecy. For I wanted to force this girl’s secrets from her, to know her innermost desires. Oh I would be proper, forbearing, I would woo her like I wooed all the rest. And indeed, it would be no trouble to woo her: anyone could see that she had quite a thing for me. No doubt she would fall right into my arms. The only challenge would be making sure she emerged from our encounter with some of her dignity intact.

Yes, I had my plans for her.  I imagined our first night together, so much like all of those other encounters that began at the club, except that I would give myself permission to touch her hair, to kiss it, to let it stream across my face like healing water. And then I would remove her shoes – those mildly ridiculous four-inch heels, too tarty for a girl like that – and I would massage her tiny feet, talking to her the while, until I felt her yielding to me in every fiber of her body. And then we would do all of the things that lovers do. But what I really wanted with her  – and curiously so, because I rarely wanted it with any woman, what I really wanted, was a second night, perhaps even a third, to find out what she had been thinking about all this time, to find out if she loved me, to hear her name the desire she felt for me, to discover what she was seeing all of the time she was looking at me.

But I never saw her again. And because of that, of course, her image became etched in my brain. And even those traits of hers about which I had felt somewhat disdainful: that average quality, her stature, her lack of style, became attractions simply because I couldn’t have her. In the meanwhile, I pursued Woman in all of her manifestations, pursued her, won her, reveled in her beauty and in her many sensuous ways. That odd year at the club turned into nearly three years in which, the more extraordinary the women, the more quickly I became bored with them.

Only occasionally did I feel, along with a moderately disorienting sense of déja vu, that some woman with whom I had been talking towards break of day was speaking to me on a deeper level, as though she knew me well, as though she had known me from childhood; for in that three years or so I had opened up, I had begun talking to the women about my hopes and fears. In a strange moment I even wished, once, that all of these many women would in the end resolve into One, become One, and become One with me. But for the most part, I began to feel horribly bored with the whole thing. And then I began to feel disgusted – with women, with myself, with life. Until, finally, I felt urgently the need to find some sort of guidance: a guru if you will. For my soul was filled with emptiness and lack. So I went to the place of the Goddess outside the City, to ask her how I might find a path that would lead me away from this confusion.

 *    *   *
“I have been expecting you. Your thousand and one nights are up.”

“Yes, Goddess: one thousand and one nights during which I tried every disguise, labored under every Appearance, twisted and tormented my soul into every possible image of Woman. And still he does not love me, I fear. I thought perhaps if you would simply grant me more time–––“

“Is that your third wish? How much time do you think you need to nail this man?”

“I don’t know. And no, it isn’t my third wish.”

“Then what can I do for you?”

“Give me more time.”

“Sorry. I go by the book. You only get more time if you make that your third wish.”

“But surely you see how I have toiled for his love?”

“Surely I do. But either make your third wish, or leave me – so that I can return to my resting place in the earth.”

“Hear it then! My third wish: give me the love I deserve.”

“Poor girl. You are a fool after all.”

“But you just said you saw how hard I strove to win his heart!”

“Yes indeed––to win his heart, when he did not wish to be won. I am the Great Goddess. Listen to me now. You do not deserve this love for which you have striven. For in pursuing this man you became a huntress, obsessed with your own success in captivating him, regardless of what he wanted. You spent a thousand nights with him––"

“A thousand and one––“

“And you did not care for his heart, nor learn his essence––“

“Oh let me try a little more––“

“Moreover you involved yourself so thoroughly in disguises, in manipulating appearances, that you no longer know who you are.”

“That much is true.”

“If you want some day to have the love you deserve––and I do not say it will be with this man––you must win back your true self, you must follow the path that to leads to knowledge of what love really is…”

“So I am to go on some type of pilgrimage?”

“Certainly you must seek the answers to the questions: ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What is love?’ ”

“Where am I to find such wisdom? What shall I do?”

“That I cannot tell you. Now leave me.”

“A final word, Goddess…”

“But I’ll tell you one thing. You won’t find what you’re looking for at the disco.”

*   *   *

Ah! Here’s the place! To some a shrine, to others a playground. In any case lots of old stone and vegetation. There’s a flower in a crannied wall. Purple. And another! Mauve. I remember playing here as a boy. Let’s see if She will grant me an audience. I could pray but I’m not feeling very pious just now. This must be the altar. I see a pilgrim recently left some fruit, if not first fruits, and what looks like a libation. Was it the sojourner up ahead of me? Looked like a small person, but grown: a woman, young. Kept thinking I’d overtake her, even quickened my pace, but she always remained ahead of me, ahead of me by the exact same distance. Perhaps I’ll just write a message on the altar stone with this piece of rock. Leave my calling card…

“What now? Didn’t I just tell you to leave me in peace? I have nothing further to say––oh! It’s you!”

“Yes, Oh Goddess! I have come to say farewell. I am leaving this place…”

“And how many broken hearts do you leave behind this time?”

“Not a one, I imagine! I never spend more than one night with any one woman.”

“I think you can imagine a little better than that! It is your fate, is it not, that they fall in love with you?”

“What have I done to deserve this?”

“Isn’t that the name of a song by…?”

“The Pet Shop Boys. With Petulia Clark.”

“Yes, yes, I remember! It’s with Dusty Springfield, actually. How does it go?
Let me see:
‘You always wanted me to be something I wasn't
You always wanted too much,
Now I can do what I want to - forever
How’m I gonna get through?
How’m I gonna get through?'

A raw deal for somebody…then….
‘At night, the people come and go
They talk too fast, and walk too slow
Chasing time from hour to hour…’
I keep expecting Michelangelo. Channeling T.S. Eliot.”

“You’ve left out the best part:
‘I come here looking for money
(Got to have it)
And end up leaving with love,
Now you left me with nothing
(Can't take it)
How’m I gonna get through?
How’m I gonna get through?’

“Broke again?”

“I’ve spent a lot on drinks in the last few years.”

“Maybe you need a new hobby.”

“Hobby! Who has been more devoted than I?”

“Devoted to…?”

“To Woman, in all of her guises.”

“Ahh. But still you are leaving us. Fare thee well, then. And may you ponder these words of wisdom:

κα τόδε Δημοδόκου. Μιλήσιοι ξύνετοι μν
κ εσιν, δρσιν δ' οά περ ξύνετοι."

“What’s the take-away?”

“It's from Abbey Road:
‘And, In the End, the love you take
Is equal to the love you make.’

“Sounds about right."

" And:so does:
‘Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight a long time…’

“Guide me then, Great Goddess. For I would pursue the path that leads to
Universal love and understanding. Shall I follow that diminutive pilgrim up ahead?
(Even from a distance she looks disquietingly familiar).”

“That girl? Oh, she is one of my acolytes. In fact she has taken a vow of silence, so she would be unable to speak with you. Her path is unique: a path of  discovery and service.”

“Perhaps I shall follow her even though she may not speak. Unless, that is, she has taken a vow of celibacy as well…”

“No, no, my good man, you must take a different path entirely. For while your feet are planted firmly on the ground, you rise sometimes to the seventh sphere, where your mind is lofted far above the Earth; and there you see with full advisement the erratic stars; and from a great height you view our earthly travail: our little world and all its vanities. Your path must be different from the path of the acolyte, who serves at my request.”


“I see you started to write a message in my Guestbook. Please continue.”

“Where was that piece of rock?”

“I’ve got a blank space–”

“­­––and I’ll write my name. Why do I have the feeling that I’m being set up?”

“Perhaps you will visit my shrine again one day. I must leave you now.”

“What path do you recommend, then?”

“There are two paths at the base of that mountain, yonder. You saw the path that my servant took: the path to the East. Do you take the path to the West. Farewell.”

“Farewell, Goddess.”
*   *   *

Now am I arrived at the base of the mountain. What did She mean about my mind being lofted high above the Earth? She is a Goddess; her wisdom is infinite (and eclectic, too) but is She reliable? Both of these paths lead up the mountain. And I am curious about that acolyte. I am taking the path to the East.

The First Base Camp

Well, I made base camp, finally. The first, lowest base camp. Exhausted, demoralized, and wary of what it might mean that I am being dogged by that very author of my present discontent: he whose heart I strove to capture, he for whom I upturned fields, figuratively speaking, culled figurative forestland and moved metaphorical mountains, he whose love I failed to win. For we were lovers for one thousand and one arable nights–from the glittering dance hall to near total darkness; time during which I used every power vested in me by the deity to plant some little seed in his mind, some kernel of liking or inclination or regard that might blossom into full-blown love. And now, as he approaches camp, eager, expectant, looking about him, I fear seeking me out––(me, that is, meaning the little hiker he followed from the city to the base camp), do you think I thrill at the very sight of him? Not at all. For the best that he can achieve right here, right now is to distract me from my mission. At worst he becomes an obstacle to Illumination. May the Goddess watch over me: may she watch and protect me from the man I love.

But see now who is gathered here at the camp: there are five pilgrims by the fire, by the open pit, with clothing and accouterments to match their stations.

That may mean a long evening, for I have heard that it is the custom of the priestling who keeps the shrine at First Base Camp to require, or at least to beg, a story after supper of every pilgrim who passes by the shrine. He then tells a story of his own, sometimes: one to contain and order all the others, as though it were a little wooden box with carving on the lid and a hidden key for which its owner has the only copy; but it is an imperfect copy that sometimes opens the box, sometimes not. If the priestling succeeds in opening his box then, and pulls out a story for us five wayfarers he is about to feed and house for the night–by my calculations that makes six stories to sit through. Oh, and if only one or two are long! A long night by the campfire! Let us hope it burns brightly! Indeed, a long night awaits.

And here comes my lover (former lover I should say, for now I am nothing to him, who formerly had but a hint of my reality; and now from being my all in all, he has become next to nothing to me). Of course he will not recognize me, since of all those nights of passion that we shared, not a single one occurred when I appeared to him as my mere self. No, for I had been granted three magic wishes of the Goddess, whose cooperation I won by rescuing her acolyte, a djinn, from imprisonment inside a beer bottle. And with two of those wishes and the Goddess’ magic, did I disguise myself every night as a different woman, always one more beautiful than the last. Be still, oh my heart. He approaches.

“Excuse me––pardon me for intruding upon your silence, Madam, but surely it does no great harm if you interrupt your service momentarily for a friend. And I am sure that we are, if not old friends, then about to become good friends, for there is something so familiar in your aspect, that I almost feel as though I have known you in a former life, though in this life, forgive me, dear lady, but I cannot link your image with a place or a name.”

“How eloquently you put a common sentiment!”

“You have taken no vow then?”


“Are you not in service to a certain deity who dwells outside the city limits, there by the city of Qum?”

“Vow? Serve? No, but I did seek guidance from the Goddess of Qum, may she live forever!”

“In a matter of the heart then, it must be, for the Goddess of Qum is commonly consulted in these love matters; though forgive me if I intrude upon your intimate concern…”

“Sir, rather than so courteously begging a woman’s pardon, perhaps it would serve you better if you did her no wrong in the first place.”

“I see that I have offended you, and in any case it is time to for a circle around the fire. I shall take my leave of you, with my best wishes.”

“Certainly. And you have my best wishes also.”

But another young man was fast approaching––this one dressed in a comical grey jacket and hood, as though he had shown up with the express purpose of taking orders. Re: belles lettres and theological clashes: this water-carrier, bearing flasks for us all, seemed about to pour his abundant blessings upon us: priestling and followers, worthy seekers all, including a few pilgrims at the ready, whether in studied humility or exquisite pride.

“Hello,” he greeted me. “Are you of this country?”

“I am. I come from the city nearby. And you?”

He handed me my flask. “From the other side of the earth.”

“Then our local sage is known in other lands?”

“He is becoming better known, and I think you will have many foreigners, wayfarers all, descending on you very soon. So you are wise to make your pilgrimage now.”

“I see. But why are you one of the advance party? What do you expect to find?”

“I do not expect, I hope. They say he is erratic, your sage.”

“Well he isn’t the Wizard of Oz. He won’t give you whatever you’re missing––courage or a ticket home. Sometimes people make the climb up the mountain, and he is nowhere to be found. Other times he welcomes wayfarers with exceptional hospitality.”

“Then why are you going up, if I may be so bold?”

“I am a follower of the Goddess. She told me I must seek the answers to two questions: “Who am I?” and “What is love?”

“How very interesting. So is your quest has been prompted by, say, a broken heart?”

“Let’s just say a confused one. What circumstances have prompted you to make this journey with such an uncertain outcome?”

“For now let’s just say–a lost brother.”

“Irredeemably lost?”

“Impossible to believe I will see him again. And the circumstances of this loss, which happened so many years ago, that I almost have forgotten his appearance, have set me on a lifelong inquiry regarding your second question.”

“What is love?”

“Yes, but not simply the love between man and woman.”

“The love between man and man too?”

“That also, but mostly I am seeking the love for all, for all the children, for all children equally in our hearts.”

“Then it is some children’s charity you work for?”

“No, indeed. This is my personal quest for self-understanding, and for …absolution.”

“You seek forgiveness?”

“I seek to forgive. But come, the priestling is signaling for us to join the others at the campfire.”

So we sat around the campfire. First the priestling, who was looking surprisingly mischievous, as though his serious face were an improvisation, a mask that at any point would give way to smiles. Then a vaguely familiar-looking older woman who wore a hat that shaded her face; then the disco playboy. Then Carl, the man who lost his brother, and I, Serena, joined them.

“So,” said the priestling, “You fortunate ones have come at an auspicious time. We will sup, and while we consume my simple stew, we will go around our small circle, and I ask that each of you, in your own way, tell the others why you chose this arduous path, the path that lies in the rain shadow. And why you have come here, to our small country, to consult a sage who may or may not be in residence, when we reach his hut at the top of the mountain.”

“Let me  begin then,” said the familiar-looking woman––(that is, her demeanor, her posture was familiar; I could not see her face.) “I was recently demoted from a position of some importance for really petty crimes, misdemeanors really. I seek the acknowledgment of the guru that I deserve to be reinstated. I chose the Eastern Path because I wish to remain anonymous, not wanting my clientele to know of my demotion.”

“I am Carl,” said the man who had lost his brother. “Seeking a difficult path, with the promise of quiet contemplation in the shadows on this, the lee side of the mountain, I hope to find the answers to many questions.”

“Tell us but a few of them,” said the priestling.

“Why did I lose my brother? What became of him? What is brotherhood? Can love of family be reconciled with universal love––“?”

“Stop!” said the priestling. “That is quite enough to be contemplating for the time being.”

He smiled, and on the surface of his face myriad tiny lines delicately displaced his stern expression to make room for merriment. “And you?” he said, looking directly at me.

“The Goddess directed me to this path.” I said. “She told me that in order to fulfill my destiny, I had first to find the answers to the questions: “Who am I?” and “What is Love?”

“To fulfill your destiny indeed,’ sighed the priestling. “And what may that be, do you know?”

“Simply to have the love I deserve,” I sighed in return.

“And now it is my turn,” said the disco playboy. “My name is Krishna; call me Kris for short. For years now, immersed in the quest for self-knowledge through experience, I pursued the many, haunted by the One, always out of reach…”

“Then you pursued a great mystery,” said the priest. “Perhaps because you needed to master nature, to know her through and through: essential not contingent, to know her fundamentally before you could go on…”

“If only I could be sure you understood me,” Kris smiled. “I’m not a saint like you. I also pursued pleasure, the greatest pleasure.”

“It is by the radiance of the pleasure we experience that the gods are able to see us, alight in the infinite darkness of the universe.” The priest was no longer smiling. “How else could they locate us on this constantly permutating power grid, so prone to outages?”

“They couldn’t…”

“And how did you come to choose the Eastern path? You know there are over 200 people at Base Camp West this morning.”

“The Goddess bade me take the Western path.”

“You defied her. Why?”

“There was a sojourner just ahead of me. I decided to follow the mortal woman.”

“But here is our supper. Let us eat and think upon our purposes.”

We ate silently as the milky sun sank below the ridges of a distant mountain range. The air began to grow chill, and we put on our jackets or other outer garments or wrapped blankets around our narrow shoulders. How hungry we were! Yet we had only  hiked up a moderately steep path. The priest put more wood on the fire, and more kindling.

Even granted that the simplest food tastes super-good when consumed in the open air, I noted that the stew was especially tasty, consisting as it did of distinct layers of flavoring, and of aromas related to the flavoring and unrelated aromas as well as blends. It was – it seemed –– permanently warm, and as I savored the last few bites, going over in my mind what a divine plate of ambrosia it was, the various great cuisines of the earth paraded before my mind's eye and I felt happy to be alive.

And just as I was thinking “Italian” who should appear out of thin air, or so it seemed, as the fifth pilgrim – the one who had been sitting by the campfire earlier, and then disappeared –  all clad in white –– though lacking a ruffle at the neck––as though perennially seeking his Colombina. And the priest (whom I have stopped calling priestling because of his stature, unusually tall as though to say he should have been an athlete) jumped up and welcomed him, and introduced him to the rest of us as Dr. Piero Paterno.

“Really?” muttered the woman in the wide-brimmed hat. “How quaint.”

“Madame?” said Piero Paterno.

“We have a father! At last we have a father!” sang the woman nonsensically.

“May introduce myself? A paternal sort of a fellow, yes indeed. I am here on a journey to commemorate the lost ones, people of our distant valley who died centuries ago in the great pestilence; I take the Eastern path in recognition of their passing through the Valley of the Shadow. And as I come here every year, sent by my village, may I tell the first story?”

And he told the story of “God Sees the Truth but Waits,” a story I have never much cared for, so I won't repeat it to you now.

Stories Told at First Base Camp

 Red Roses

“May I just say,” said the woman in the wide-brimmed hat, its shadow effectively covering her face, “that that story we just heard is a rather grim story? Why do we not tell stories of our youth, stories of love? Sometimes, indeed, before I occupied the extremely important position that I recently held––before my demotion––I used to reminisce with my friends––all of us so elegant in our youth, so full of high spirits, and the men so gallant in those days. . . We had many lighthearted tales to tell.”

“By all means,” said the priest. “For al kinds of love––all varieties of love––are the very best topics of any stories we tell here to send us on our way.”

“Well of course I was an innocent young girl, not a lady of the night, so I did not have experience in all varieties of love, some of which, to be honest, I would not feel comfortable discussing in any great detail in polite company. . .”

“That is not what I meant, Madame, by the different varieties of love,” said the priest.

“. . . but I can think of one little tale that might amuse you. So let me tell you a story about red roses.  How many were the bouquets I received from my suitors! But before all that, before my suitors came on the scene, before even my friendships formed in the theater––all of which happened when I was a a young girl, because my parents, as soon as they saw that I was nearing the Age of Consent, demanded that I leave my proletarian amigos, and abandon my childhood fancy of becoming an actress––leaving behind what had become a home away from home––the Little Theater on Rua dos Fannquieros––before all that, there were red roses from my Uncle Jim, not really my uncle, but a handsome young American who boarded with my family. There in that Little Theater was my world, where I could live happily in a life of the imagination, far away from the evil intentions of my rivals.

In those days I lived with my little family, that is my mother and her younger sister, on the Rua do Parados. For some reason that I never understood, and which was never explained to me, we told everyone that my mother’s younger sister was my elder sister; but in fact I had no sister: I was an only child. As for the Rua do Parados, mother said it meant a fortification to protect soldiers from surprise attack. She believed in this, and our small living quarters was fortified against myriad mishaps. Jim, though, said Rua do Parados meant Parade Street, and I was sure to see many parades while living there. The parades I did see were among my fondest memories. We lived on the third floor, and so could look down upon the parades that passed by on the street. My mother would invite friends and sometimes people she didn’t know to come up and watch the parades. And the next day, some of the gentlemen, the really gallant fellows, would send my mother red roses.

So when I started to perform small roles in the adult theater called Lisboa Franca, it seemed perfectly natural that I would receive, on opening night, one dozen red roses.  Lisboa Franca was a curiously cosmopolitan theater where, due to the fact that many in our audience were tourists, we performed everything from Commedia dell'Arte to American musicals. By that time, I had already been performing for many years in children's theater.

In the children’s theater, where I was just as likely to play the part of a fox or a hookah smoking caterpillar or a naughty little rabbit called Peter as that of a girl of nine or ten years, it had nevertheless been deemed appropriate by my family, and above all by Uncle Jim, that there too, I should receive a dozen red roses in the dressing room on opening night. And the roses were beautiful! As for the care of my perfect little flowers, I cherished them, kept them in the freshest water, and placed them next to me on the dresser with the mirror where the actresses sat, and I watched them bloom in their vases, day after day, while I put my make-up on.

But while I was still playing Peter Rabbit, it was considered bad form by some of the children’s parents to have “this Jim fellow,” as they called Uncle Jim, sending roses to me in the dressing room at the theater. After all, not all of the children’s parents could afford to send them roses. And only I had an Uncle Jim. So he was asked to have them sent to me at home. 

The transition from children’s theater to adult theater went rather smoothly. Now I played smaller parts, but they were important parts: the parts of children in an adult world. I no longer had my pick of playmates, but I began to make friends with some of the adults, extraordinary people whose like I would never meet outside the theater. And it was acceptable for Uncle Jim to send my roses to the theater.

Just to give one example, I played the part of a German girl, Lotte von Frick: the judge’s daughter in a play called October Festival. The play was set in Munich in 1938 when the Nazis were taking over Germany. My family had a secret: a Jewish musician was hiding in our basement. My part was negligible except for one very important scene. That was my sleepwalking scene, the one in which I appeared alone on stage in a long white nightgown, slowly brought a nightmare about the camps to fever pitch, saw, in my dreams, heaps of suitcases and piles of children’s shoes, and woke up (and woke anyone who might have been sleeping in the audience) with a piercing, blood-curdling scream. I had been chosen for the part based on my ability to deliver that scream, and every night for eight weeks I delivered.

But alas, by the time of October Festival, Uncle Jim had stopped making trips to Lisbon, and there was no one to send me roses: not even for a performance such as this. It might also be said that, for me, age fourteen by now, and not yet having had a boyfriend, the real drama was going on behind the scenes. For even the main actors, who were onstage most of the time, had their moments of waiting. Moments spent going over their lines, getting in the way of the stage crew, befriending other actors, falling in love, and maybe even flirting with a fourteen year-old who should have been doing her homework.

For a fourteen year-old as yet completely inexperienced in the ways of men, I wasn’t doing too badly. I had Joao and Gabrielo, you see. I knew that in “real life” they were both in love with Anita, the character of Lotte von Frick’s older sister. But what did I care? I spent time, now with Joao, a handsome twenty-eight year-old man who educated me on everything from Nazism to kissing; now with Gabrielo, a wild-eyed, talented extrovert age twenty-seven, who sang in operettas, played the devil in the American musical Damn Yankees, and had gorgeous curly hair and a killer smile. He encouraged me to take risks: why not climb on that piece of scaffolding backstage, and use it as a balance beam? I did, and he clambered up after me. As we walked along this precarious path, he took my hand and sang, in English, in a beautiful tenor voice that resounded all over the theater, “Take My Hand, I’m a Stranger in Paradise.”

If you think this didn’t go to my head––a fourteen year-old girl getting this kind of attention from two leading men–––you would be very wrong. I immediately fell in love: with both of them. It was wonderful, it was marvelous, but all too soon there was trouble in Paradise.

Now Joao, now Gabrielo, importuned me, wanting to know which one of them I liked better. Better? Why on earth should I like one of them better? They were both so much fun. In different ways. Joao was quieter and more serious. And easy to be around. Gabrielo was a like an adventurous boy! Wild and crazy. I told them so. I liked both of them the same.

"But you can only really love one of us," Joao told me as he gazed at me meltingly with his big brown eyes. "That is the meaning of love: to choose one person above all others." Later, as we swung deliriously, like Tarzan and Jane, on ropes that hung backstage, Gabrielo told me the same thing. He needed to know my true feelings. Which one did I love? Why, I loved both of them. The same. And I saw no reason to give one of them up. That would be pointless.

A painting of a bridge across a waterfall

The two men continued to romance me. And they continued to press me, not for sexual favors, fortunately, but for what each man wanted most: to hear (though no doubt what he truly wanted was to hear it from Anita, not from me) that I loved him only, that I loved him best. Their persistence, and apparent seriousness, took the fun out of these burgeoning romances. Being in love wasn't always that much fun, I learned. So, in the end, feeling that my hand had been forced, I took each of my suitors, separately, to a private, romantic place backstage,and I gave each man what he most wanted: a declaration of love, and the promise that I loved him exclusively, loved him best.
It never occurred to me that the men would compare notes! And not only that. For it turned out that they had been plotting against me all along. They had been carefully laying a trap.

Together, they appeared, saying: “We need to talk.” Together, they took me to the romantic place I had chosen. (Unfortunately, perhaps, I had chosen the same romantic spot ––a plaster of Paris tree in front of the painting of a bridge across a waterfall, in which to deliver my identically-worded declaration of love to each of my suitors.) Together, they chided me: I had sinned against love. I had not told the truth. But worst of all, I had committed a tactical error. They, my older and wiser friends, wanted to teach me a lesson. So I wouldn’t make this same mistake in the future. And what was the lesson they must teach me? Never play both ends against the middle.

For the remaining week of the play I didn’t feel like hanging out with Joao or Gabrielo. They weren’t fun anymore. I didn’t feel they were especially good friends, either. So I sat backstage by myself, or hung out with Anita. Joao offered me ice cream, but I declined. Gabrielo wanted to lend me a copy of an American Mad Magazine. I told him I already had  one.

It was the last night of the play. The only ‘child’ in the cast, I wasn’t going to attend the cast party, which would start off at a bar. I’d stay for “strike” – the ritual of pulling the scenery apart after the last performance, and I’d stay for the traditional presentation of a bottle of Sherry to the Stage Manager, an Englishman named Sherry – and then I’d go home.

I arrived at the theater on the last night, went straight to the dressing room to put on my make-up, and there, unbelievably, they were: a dozen red roses, for me. Not from Uncle Jim this time. There was a little card with the flowers. It was signed, to me, “with Love from your Two Boyfriends, Joao and Gabrielo.” We were friends again.  Everything was all right after all. I could love them both. The same.

Red Roses and a Dragon

“What a charming story,” said Serena. “Is it true?”

“Well,” said the woman in the wide-brimmed hat, “That depends on what the meaning of ‘true’ is.”

“I mean did it actually happen. To you.”

“Well yes, in a manner of speaking, it did. Though as you know I was an actress for many years, and we actors and actresses often have a decidedly complicated relationship with reality. A thing can be true, for example, without being very real at all.”

“I’m afraid don’t understand.”

“The metaphysics of this has been pretty well addressed by literary criticism in the last century,” said Carl, whom Serena thought of as “the man who lost his brother.” Serena thought he seemed annoyed. “Not to mention Plato,” Carl went on. “I’m wondering if anyone recognized the provenance of the first story, and whether we should discuss it.”

“Don’t we want to get an early start, and be well rested?” Kris suggested. “We will be up late if we are tempted to discuss every story.”

“Agreed,” said Paterno. “Tomorrow’s climb is hard work, I can tell you, and you are all going to want to get your rest. As to the origin of that story I told: I imagine it is a kind of folk tale, but of course any of us who know the story know it from a common source: Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy.”

“Folk tale?” said Carl. “It’s very specific to Russia’s punitive correctional system! The innocent man is exonerated after all those years, but he can’t get his life back; he’s lost twenty-six years to the system––the legal system and the prison system. So how happy are we going to be for him? What’s he thinking: ‘Hooray! I finally get to leave Siberia”?

“Yes, there’s something really awful about that story,” said Serena. “And I suspect part of it is a sort of, ‘Oh well, he’s just an old peasant anyway––who cares if he gets flogged and sent to Siberia?”

“He’s a merchant,” said Kris.

“What if flogging wasn’t part of the story,” said the priest. “Imagine the story is just about a man who has to wait so long to be exonerated. He did nothing wrong, but he is punished, by having to wait. You know that has happened. And it happens all over the world today.”

“Then it’s a story about injustice,” said Serena.

“Exactly,” said Carl.

“But isn’t it a story about God’s justice?” said Kris. “Remember, God sees the truth. He could have had the truth come out at any time, presumably. But instead he makes the man suffer. Suffer and wait. God sees he truth, but waits to tell us. Why?”

“He made the man wait too long, in my opinion,” said Paterno.

“Maybe it’s just as well,” said the woman in the wide-brimmed hat. “After what they did to him. The flogging. The disgrace. Where would he go? He’s completely lost touch with his family. It isn’t as though he could just go home and reenter society. He might as well stay in prison in Siberia where he’s kept warm and fed regular meals. ”

“We’re pretending the flogging and so on didn’t happen,” said Carl.

“But that’s ridiculous,” said the woman. “It’s part of the story. You can’t just re-write part of the story because you don’t like it.”

“Why not?” said Kris. “If that part of the story about being beaten with a knout, probably to within inches of his life––– proves an obstacle to our understanding it, why not re-write that part of it? We can then move ahead, instead of getting stuck in our uncomfortable assumptions.”

“What is your answer then?” asked the priest. “Does the story actually help us think about God’s Justice?”

“My answer?” said Kris. “Is that I think it is also a story about Time. God does things according to his own calendar. He’s got his own agenda, his own schedule. We may be able to do something about that from time to time. But on the whole we must accept. Some day with science we may be able to change God’s agenda, alter his priorities. Then perhaps God will cease to exist.”

“Science will outpace God?”  asked Paterno.

No one seemed very upset by the idea.

“Yes,” said Krishna. “But until then it is our duty in loving God to wait for him. We are like the woman who waits for her lover. She longs for him to come and take her tenderly in his arms, but she can’t make him arrive any sooner. Whether he is a soldier fighting in a war, or a man who lingers over coffee with  a friend, or even a man who loves two women, like the little actress who loved both of her leading men, the woman can’t make her lover come any sooner; she can’t make him come any faster than he is going to.”

“That’s a really sexist example,” said Carl.

“They weren’t really her leading men,” said Paterno. “She had a very small part. Only two scenes.”

“The woman in your example could get a new lover,” suggested the woman in the wide-brimmed hat.

“Yes, of course ––unless she only wants this one, the lover who arrives late,” said Krishna. “And we too, tired of waiting for his justice, could change our relationship to God  if we are tired of waiting.”

“What about a man who waits for a woman?” said Serena.

Krishna stood up and recited some words in an unfamiliar language.
Then in English he chanted:

Twilight came. Cloaked in her oceans, Earth sorrowed, lamenting like a widow who has given herself over to grief.

Dusk swept victorious over the ancient city of Puhar bringing sorrow to faithful wives whose husbands were gone.

Kannaki, her heart oppressed by her Lord’s absence,
Wore neither anklets nor girdle. She had not rubbed the sweet-smelling vermillion on her breasts.

Women, separated from their beloved husbands released the heavy sighs of squeezed-out goatskins.

King Tirumavalavan was marching his army north from Puhar. He marched ever northward; only the Himalayas could stop him.

“What language is that?” complained Paterno. “I never heard it before. We can’t be expected to know all of these local dialects. Why are we chanting poetry? We will be up all night!”

“It’s a poem in Ancient Tamil,” said the priest; then looking at Krishna:
“I take it you wanted us to hear some of the world’s most beautiful poetry, which just happens to be about women waiting for their beloved husbands.”

“And now you invite us to recite some poetry about men waiting for their wives,” laughed Paterno.

“Ah, no,” said Krishna, “I merely––“

“But our storytelling is devolving into an academic spat,” said the priest. “Time for the next story.”

“I’ll go next,” said Serena. “I have a really short-short story.  A mini-tale. This story is also by an author whose name has become legend. Who can guess whose story it is?”

A man is travelling. He crosses a wind-swept plane. For miles in all directions, he sees no one and nothing. Perhaps he will join a caravan, if one will only come this way. Hours pass. He is disoriented. There are few landmarks. Perhaps he has been walking in a circle? He is completely alone. For hours he walks, his pace becomes slow and slower as he begins to lose hope. 

But there ––in the distance ––a small village. Winking lights. At last, a human habitation! He quickens his step. Suddenly––out of nowhere––a ravening beast! A hungry, howling beast! The man runs for his life towards what he believes to be a human habitation. But he is exhausted. Spent. He can only run so fast. And because he is a man and not a beast, even as tired as he is, even in the murky twilight, he is able to calculate the rate at which the beast is gaining on him. And in so doing he calculates his own death: he simply cannot run fast enough. The intelligent species is about to be devoured by the dumb but famished beast.

But wait! He has reached the outskirts of the village (which he now suspects is abandoned) and here is a dry well for him to hide in! He jumps into the well just in time too escape the beast. He drops down to a ledge some nine feet above the bottom of the well. Here he is safe from the beast, for if the beast tries to enter the well, it will fall crashing to the bottom. The hungry beast, out-maneuvered, remains nevertheless at the top of the well, now whimpering, now howling with rage. But let us see what kind of a refuge the man has found for himself.

Oops! There is a dragon at the bottom of the well, as hungry, no doubt, as the beast at the top. And to make matters worse, that ledge is dry and cracked. It has started crumbling. The man though finds a branch growing in a fissure in the wall: it is enough to hang onto. He can move neither up nor down, so he settles and lets his eyes adjust so he can see what, if anything, is going on around him. He sees two mice now, a black and a white one, that go regularly around the base of the branch to which he is clinging and gnaw at it. He sees that in time the branch will snap, and he will fall into the jaws of the dragon below. But there is solace too: there are drops of honey on the leaves of the branch he is clinging to, and these he licks with his tongue, and smiles.

Serena paused. “That’s all there is,” she said.

“Well don’t leave us hanging,” said Krishna.

“Is this a make-your-own-ending, or what?” Carl moaned.

“Clever girl,” said the woman in the drooping hat, who backed by the brilliant light of the sun––just ready to dip below the mountains in the distance––was only visible as a silhouette; and she began to laugh softly. “You’ll have them guessing! That’s an old Eastern fable, whatever author has taken it up. Let’s see what they can guess (don’t ask me, for I remember it from my school days). You, Paterno! What do the dragon and the beast stand for?”

“Death I suppose,” said Paterno. “Inevitable death. Or the fact that life is nasty, brutish and short.”

“Well done. And you, our priest, what are the drops of honey?”

“The pleasure in life, that momentarily distracts us from our dire plight.”

“And now Lord Krishna,” she said to the handsome young man who sat nearest her in the deep double shade of night and a tree, “for that is your name, I take it? Do tell us the allegory of the mice.”

“Lord Krishna indeed,” muttered Kris. “I may have mentioned that my full name was Kristophe, but I don’t fancy myself a deity, especially one who has to rise a 6:00 a.m.”

“You deny it then?”

“Deny what?”

“That you are Lord Krishna, the Supreme Being,” said the silhouette.

Everyone laughed at once, spontaneously and for exactly the same amount of tine.

‘Talk about being all things to all people: I’m afraid not. But I can tell you the allegory––“

“Let’s hear it,” said Carl. “By my reckoning, we have a whopping three stories to go. But where has Kris gone?”

“Over here,” shouted a muffled voice.

All ran to the little recess, a niche in the wall–-for that is where Kris-like human sounds appeared to be coming from. But Kris was not there.

“Over here!” shouted Kris, or rather his voice, and everyone ran to him. 

“No, no!” he laughed, “up here, in the tree!” And, “Please help me! I’m afraid to climb down!”

The three men climbed the tree, for Kris’s voice was definitely coming from the tree. But of course he was not there.

“Ventriloquism,” sighed the priest. “What a prankster!”

“All right,” said Kris, for it was really he. The young man was now perched on a branch of the tree whose voluminous shade engulfed the woman in the hat, Paterno, and Carl. “The black and white mice are night and day. The mice stand for the relentless progression of clock time, its never-changing decree.”

 “That’s it then,” said Serena. “That is the human condition as expressed in an Eastern fable re-worked by Tolstoy, but only a little, for in his case the drops of honey stand for the family, and then for Art…”

“Tolstoy again!” said the silhouette. “And another rather unpleasant story. Let’s have another author!”

“I have a few very short stories to tell,” said Kris, laughing, as he jumped down from the tree to the ground.

“And then I have my story to share,” said Carl. “Indeed, I have long waited for the right people to tell, fearing, even, that this terrible tale might stay locked up inside me forever; I waited until very recently, when a strange series of events led me to a spiritual guide, who in turn directed me to this place. And I have long anticipated sharing my story with a compassionate group of people such as I find here. Who knows, perhaps you can even help me on my path.”

“Then I shall be quick,” said Kris. “In any case, my stories are mere anecdotes. They are meant to entertain.”


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